Tool Q&A: How to prepare for the new A/C refrigerant

It seems like everywhere you look these days, you hear about global warming and its effects on our beloved planet earth. Although some of the discussions surrounding this topic can foster a good deal of controversy, you can be sure that any legislation...


It seems like everywhere you look these days, you hear about global warming and its effects on our beloved planet earth. Although some of the discussions surrounding this topic can foster a good deal of controversy, you can be sure that any legislation driven by global warming concerns is going to have an effect at the shop level.

To that end, the industry is on the brink of its second major change of factory fill for refrigerants in mobile air conditioning systems. It’s hard to believe that R-134a has been with us since 1995, but you might as well consider it the lame duck of refrigerants as the industry prepares for R-134a’s successor, a refrigerant designated as HFO-1234yf, or simply R-1234yf.

In this month’s Tool Q&A, we address some of your most common questions regarding A/C service as it looks today with R-134a and how it’s likely to transition with the dawning of a new refrigerant.

Q. We originally switched from R-12 to R-134a because R-134a didn’t deplete the ozone layer, so why are we switching again?

A. Although R-134a was chosen as R-12's successor due to having non-ozone-depleting properties, new environmental concerns would eventually surface that cast a shadow on the future viability of R-134a. With international emphasis now on global warming, it became clear that R-134a's high global-warming potential made it an unlikely candidate to be the refrigerant of choice headed into the future. Accordingly, research began to find a more environmentally friendly alternative refrigerant. At first, it appeared as though CO2, also known as R-744, would be R-134a's successor. However, R-744 operates at much higher pressures and has a lower thermodynamic efficiency (ability to displace heat) than R-134a. These factors opened the door to another R-134a alternative, designated as R-1234yf. This new refrigerant has vapor-pressure performance that very closely matches that of R-134a, yet with a lower net global-warming potential than R-744. These factors put another couple of checkmarks into the plus column for R-1234yf. This new refrigerant is now poised to become the replacement for R-134a and cars filled with the new refrigerant will soon be headed your way.

Q. Are there any downsides to this new R-1234yf refrigerant?

A. At present, there are two. First, R-1234yf will cost roughly ten times more than R-134a. Keep in mind, though, that this is a preliminary estimate. Like anything that’s manufactured, costs tend to come down once an industry gears up and gets into full production. Second, R-1234yf has mild flammability traits when under pressure, and we stress mild. These traits are accounted for in upcoming training and certification programs for this new refrigerant.

Q. Our shop did quite a few retrofits, converting from R-12 to R-134a. Will we also be able to retrofit R-134a systems to R-1234yf?

A. No, retrofitting R-134a systems to R-1234yf will not be allowed. First of all, it doesn’t make economic sense to switch to a refrigerant that’s estimated to be ten times as expensive as R-134a. Second, because of R-1234yf’s mild flammability characteristics, the evaporator for systems containing this new refrigerant have to be sturdier than for previous refrigerants. That’s why SAE has a standard in the works for evaporators in R-1234yf systems, designated as J2842.

Q. How long do I have to prepare for servicing this new refrigerant? In other words, how long do I have to gear up for my shop and technicians?

A. General Motors will be the first auto maker to feature HFO-1234yf in 2013 model year Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models. You can expect other car makers to make similar announcements soon on their rollout plans for the new refrigerant.

Q. How much of an impact will servicing cars with R-1234yf have on my current A/C service equipment?

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